Democracy has a future, if we rethink and remake it


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While some are declaring that democracy has had its day, others see this as a time to develop more truly democratic ways of living.
Gustav Klimt, Death and Life, 1910

Alice el-Wakil, University of Zürich; Anna Szolucha, Polish Academy of Sciences; David A. Teegarden, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York; Graham Smith, University of Westminster; Nancy L. Rosenblum, Harvard University; Peter Wilkin, Brunel University London, and Ryusaku Yamada, Soka University

These comments on the global fate of democracy, the first in a three-part series, Is Democracy Dead or Alive?, are gathered by Democratic Theory and co-published by The Conversation with the Sydney Democracy Network. Several of these comments will feature as full-length articles in a special issue of Democratic Theory.


Consider Brexit, the election of US President Donald Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s referendum, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy of state-sanctioned murder and Hungary’s drift towards a new authoritarianism.

“Democracy is dead,” say the disheartened. “It’s time to bury democracy,” pounds one Tunisian pro-Sharia party. “Democracy has fallen, we need a new game in town,” argue Vladimir Putin’s populist and Xi Jinping’s neo-authoritarian allies.

These mantras, circulated widely through social media, have ricocheted around the world and were felt perhaps most viscerally in 2017. It was a year full of political events that, in hindsight, look like a string of assaults against democratic ways of living.

Is democracy dying, or perhaps already dead? Is it really time to eulogise democracy, or are we rather on the cusp of a new phase in its long and varied life? – Jean-Paul Gagnon, University of Canberra

Anguish about democracy attests to its value

Alice el-Wakil, University of Zurich

It has become common that under half of the citizenry votes in most Western democracies, that anti-democratic politicians get elected, and that elected authorities are accused of failing to protect citizens’ interests.

Corruption and nepotism are making comebacks and inequalities of all sorts are on the rise. At this time it is legitimate to ask whether democracy is breaking apart.

However, this worrisome situation should not transform us into sceptics about democracy. The outcry against the problems mentioned above shows that the public notices and criticises political shortcomings to realise democratic ideals – that there is something about democracy worth mobilising for.

Hence, as certain existing democratic regimes risk being perverted, we should use this critical moment to reinvent and expand democracy.

In most parts of the world, democracy has so far only taken the form of a specific kind of institutional arrangement, namely electoral representative democracy. It relies on a valuable but limited set of institutions, which preserves an exclusionary bias and a fundamental suspicion of citizens’ capacity to make political decisions.

The current challenges to this specific set of institutions should encourage us to acknowledge alternative, emerging practices of democratic participation and to create and experiment with complementary institutions.

Referendum procedures, new forms of representation, or assemblies of citizens are examples of the innovations we should consider to revivify democratic systems. Be it only because democracy enables us to publicly, legitimately and continuously question its value and to peacefully propose new ways of realising it.

Don’t look to the powerful for answers

Anna Szolucha, University of Bergen

The democratic impulse rarely originates in the corridors of power. Certain political elites may have a knack for exploiting right-wing populist and nationalist narratives to rewrite history and give a semblance of democratic legitimacy to the “corporate state”, but they are hardly effective when it comes to promoting popular concerns about freedom, justice, equality and social dialogue.

Normally, democracy is fought for and won by ceaseless struggles and popular resistances.

During the wave of pro-democratic protests that recently swept through the world, protesters in the West were critical of the liberal representative model of democracy, growing inequalities, and the influence of business on politics.

It’s clear there is a need to rethink democracy. The solution, however, is not to revamp the old model but to defend and simultaneously revisit the idea of democracy. We need to do so in such a way that it fosters equality, freedom and a sense that ordinary citizens have a greater influence on politics – virtues that the liberal representative version has failed to deliver.

The task of rethinking democracy is pressing because we are witnessing arrogant and aggressive attempts by political elites to appropriate democratic language to expand their own powers.

Despite massive protests and opposition to their policies, they call on “The People” to offer more undemocratic solutions to real or imagined problems. They curtail freedom, centralise control, divide society, destroy the climate and institutionalise their privilege in the process.

The more than 13.4 million files in the Paradise Papers revealed the workings of the tax haven industry.

The rethinking and remaking of democracy is going to take effort and perseverance, but the continuing resistance shows that now is definitely not the time to announce the death of democracy because it never belonged to those who seem to be killing it in the first place.

Three keys to democratic values

Nancy Rosenblum, Harvard University

Authoritarian power grabs – those grim assaults on constitutional democracy – demand political and legal resistance. Illiberal populism – those episodic rejections of the terms of political representation – demand the rehabilitation of hollowed-out parties.

Authoritarianism is the business of predators: the cynical exploitation of the democratic weaknesses of the moment. Populism is expressive anger: a reaction against conditions of the moment felt to be threatening and out of control. Both are caused by democracy’s own political demons.

We don’t need to relitigate democracy, but we do need a full-throated affirmation of its value, which comes in three different keys.

The aspirational key: democracy is a system of political representation rooted in the moral ground of the equal value of all the governed. No constitutional arrangement is democratic without aspirational commitment to civil and political equality in the form of civil and political rights. No bad faith “illiberal democracy” makes that commitment.

The outcome key: over time and in the face of vicissitudes and ineptitude, democracy aims at general wellbeing more consistently and competently than other forms of government. Democracy is the only self-correcting system. Democracies have recessions, depressions and fumbling responses to crises. They do not have famines.

The defence against tyranny key: civil society is the bulwark against arbitrary and total power. Only democracy cultivates freedom of association and its product: the groups, associations, networks and political parties that fuel unendingly contested democratic politics and that make trouble.

Our best check on elite tyranny

David Teegarden, University at Buffalo – State University of New York

Democratic governance provides the best practical check on elite domination. The citizenry has numerical superiority in every state. Unfortunately, elites (wealth, military, religious) know how to atomise and render them effectively powerless: thus the persistence of narrow oligarchy and autocracy throughout recorded history.

However, democratic institutions such as elections, the law and the free press, along with their ideals of political equality and individual freedom, can facilitate citizens’ efforts to co-ordinate their actions, draw upon their collective strength and force their elite competitors to agree to some sort of co-operative relationship.

In a functioning democracy, everybody – even billionaires, generals and bishops – must obey laws made by and enforced by all citizens.

It is certainly true that democratic governance often breeds contentious public discourse. It can lead to terrible, even disastrous outcomes from time to time. But it is far better to endure those things than to endure the horror of being forced to bow down publicly to an oppressive tyrant with no realistic hope of betterment either for yourself or for your children.

Solutions start with a constructive critique

Peter Wilkin, Brunel University

Representative democracy has always been regarded as problematic by those who have sought to replace it with authoritarian rule. Today many of these authoritarian trends have gained new voice and increasingly anti-democratic forces can be found.

But we can’t conflate all challenges to representative democracy as being the same. We can distinguish between those social forces that draw inspiration from the radical right – such as ethnonationalism, neo-fascism, militarism – and those that can be seen as a novel continuation of the libertarian socialist tradition – Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Rojava.

The radical right is intolerant, aggressive and wants to capture the state for authoritarian ends and to nationalise capitalism.

By contrast, the libertarian socialist tradition is an attempt to extend democracy into areas like the economy (for example the citizen’s wage, universal income, worker control of industry). Libertarian socialists also attempt to reconfigure centralised state power and restore decision-making to communities.

Both movements are responding to the same conditions: the polarising impact of capitalism on social life (inequality, insecurity, poverty) and the failure of representative democracy to offer solutions to these problems.

Such solutions are simpler for the radical right, which has no commitment to democracy or civil liberties. The radical right wants to impose order upon society by any means, including violence and intimidation.

For movements inspired by the libertarian socialist aspiration to deepen, enrich and extend democracy, finding solutions is much harder. The means to be used are seen as fundamental to the society that will emerge.

As a result, violence, fear, propaganda and other powerful anti-democratic tools are eschewed in favour of education and organising communities through dialogue and negotiation.

Overcome short-termism for democratic renewal

Graham Smith, University of Westminster

In privileging the present over long-term sustainability, contemporary democracies have failed to deal effectively with climate change. But this does not mean, as some suggest, that we require a more authoritarian solution. Rather, we need to understand the sources of short-termism and think more creatively about our democratic institutions and practices.

The sources of short-termism are multiple and mutually reinforcing. These include: short electoral cycles that incentivise limited party-political horizons; vested interests that benefit from current political and economic arrangements; our psychological preference for immediate gratification; an economic system that privileges carbon-based consumption; and unborn generations who are unable to defend their interests.

These examples could be seen as a litany of despair. Or they could be recognised as a new set of challenges on which to base democratic renewal.

The potential contours for a reinvigorated long-term democracy are beginning to emerge. Imaginative and practical democratic innovation already includes: institutional experimentation such as independent offices for future generations that scrutinise the decision-making of other public bodies; new rights and forms of public participation designed to orientate citizens towards consideration of future generations; and co-operatives and other forms of collective corporate governance that prioritise sustainability over immediate economic return.

Leading policymakers, business leaders and civil society activists gathered in 2017 for the first UN Global Festival of Ideas for Sustainable Development.
Global Festival of Action/flickr

Time to get serious about citizenship education

Ryusaku Yamada, Soka University

Civil society, voluntary associations, active citizenship, social capital – these were the rosy keywords often used in discussions of radical democracy at the end of the 20th century.

Now, nearly 20 years later, we are seeing that people’s active participation can be negative, driven by emotional populist movements. Social capital is not always strong enough to empower people who are alienated and excluded from decision-making. Civil society is often uncivil.

History tells us that the so-called democratic political system does not guarantee the improvement of democratic society. Karl Mannheim, for example, who analysed mass society in the age of fascism, worried about an irrational democracy of emotions.

Mannheim was an advocate of social education (a concept similar to citizenship education today), which is meant to make the attitudes and behaviours of both common people and elites more democratic.

Although some might doubt the efficacy of such an education for the democratisation of society, it hasn’t in any serious way been tried before. As the old saying goes: we won’t know if it’ll work until we try.

For Mannheim and some of his contemporaries like John Dewey, T.S. Eliot and A.D. Lindsay, democracy is not only a political system but also a way of life. Citizenship education is not only a matter of school education but also of people’s social practice in their everyday lives.

The ConversationFar from saying “democracy is dying”, we need to say that “now is the time for democracy to be lived”.

Alice el-Wakil, PhD Researcher, University of Zürich; Anna Szolucha, Research Fellow, Polish Institute of Advanced Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences; David A. Teegarden, Associate Professor, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Department of Classics, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York; Graham Smith, Professor of Politics, University of Westminster; Nancy L. Rosenblum, Senator Joseph Clark Research Professor on Ethics in Politics and Government, Harvard University; Peter Wilkin, Reader In Communications Media & Cultural Studies, Brunel University London, and Ryusaku Yamada, Professor of Political Theory, Soka University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Where will the global political hotspots be in 2018? (Spoiler alert: it’s not all about Donald Trump)



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With so many global flashpoints, and so little diplomacy, 2018 could be a turbulent year.
AAP/The Conversation

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Writing for Foreign Policy, Robert Malley, the newly appointed head of the International Crisis Group, makes a good point when discussing global challenges in 2018:

It is not all about Donald Trump.

To be sure, an erratic American presidency contributes to unsteadiness around the globe. American global leadership is now contested as never before since the Allies triumphed in the second world war.

Even in the depths of a Cold War marked by various crises – including the Berlin Blockade, an ill-starred military adventure in Vietnam, and the Cuban Missile Crisis – American leadership would still assert itself.

Let’s not forget American post-second-world-war diplomacy spawned international institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the United Nations and NATO. In Australia’s case, it also gave birth to the ANZUS Treaty, initialled in 1951.

… although it is a little bit about Donald Trump.
Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

There was hardly any component of post-war global architecture that did not involve Washington in a leading role.

ANZUS, and with it the American alliance, remains the cornerstone of Australia’s security arrangements – notwithstanding a frequent misinterpretation of the treaty as a security guarantee as opposed to an agreement to consult in the event of either party’s security being threatened.

In essence, America is godfather of post-war multilateralism. An American-led consensus on how best to manage its global responsibilities is now in danger of unravelling, buffeted by domestic “America First” disagreements at home and a contested security environment abroad.

Australia’s place in the world

From an Australian perspective, it is all about a shifting power balance in the Indo-Pacific.

This might be described as the pre-eminent challenge in the year(s) ahead, as Australia navigates between the idiosyncracies of a Trump White House and its successors. Then there is the relentless Chinese push to spread its power and influence.

Above all in the foreign policy sphere, Australian policymakers are faced with the task of expanding Canberra’s foreign and security policy room for manoeuvre between its security guarantor and principal trading partner, without endangering the alliance relationship itself.

China, led by Xi Jinping, will continue to push to spread its power and influence.
Reuters

This will require a sophistication that has not always been apparent among policymakers. Their instinct has been to cling to the alliance like a life raft and, on occasions, discreditably, use it as a wedge issue against political opponents.

China’s rise is encouraging a more realistic view of Australia’s geopolitical circumstances, and none too soon.

The following extracts from Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper, released in November, provide a flavour of that greater realism:

Navigating the decade ahead will be hard because as China’s power grows our region is changing in ways without precedent in Australia’s modern history.

And:

Powerful drivers are converging in a way that is reshaping the international order and challenging Australia’s interests. The United States has been the dominant power in our region throughout Australia’s post-second-world-war history. Today, China is challenging America’s position.

And:

The government recognises there is great debate and uncertainty in the United States about the costs and benefits of its leadership of the international system.

And:

In the decades ahead we expect further contestation [between the US and China] over ideas and influence, directly affecting Australia. It is imperative that Australia prepare for the long term.

All of this exposes Australia’s biggest challenge in the next several decades. Simply put, this is to build its own self-reliance, including smart investments in defence capabilities, along with nurturing security relationships in its own region.

Most desirable in all of this would be to involve – not exclude – China in building a regional security architecture. This could possibly be along the lines of the Helsinki Accords, which helped stabilise Europe during a long stand-off with the former Soviet Union.

Australian officials might want to expand a quadrilateral Indo-Pacific security partnership – involving the US, Japan, Australia and India – envisaged as a hedge against China to others, including China itself.

Creative regional diplomacy of the sort that brought about the establishment of the Australia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum would seem to be required.

Closer to home

This is the big global challenge for Australia in 2018 and beyond. Now to what might be described as “localised” challenges.

We’ll restrict that number to five, including:

  • North Korea’s nuclear ambitions;

  • the Middle East more generally, and potential conflict with Iran in particular;

  • the Rohingya crisis and pressures that is exerting on Myanmar and surrounding countries. Alongside this is the “identity politics” across Asia, in which minorities (like the Rohingya) are threatened;

  • Afghanistan, in which Australian forces are still involved in a training capacity; and

  • threats of cyber-terrorism: what Ian Bremmer and Cliff Kupchan of the Eurasia Group describe as a “global tech cold war”.

At the top of the regional challenges is North Korea, led by Kim Jong-un.
Reuters/KCNA

Top of this list is North Korea, where the risk of overreach and accident with terrible consequences is real. As Malley puts it in his Foreign Policy paper:

Without a viable diplomatic offramp, Washington risks cornering itself into military action. Even a precisely targeted attack would likely provoke a North Korean response.

From Australia’s perspective, and given that the bulk of its trade goes to the countries of North Asia (China, Japan and South Korea), conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be crippling.

Second on my list, as it is on Malley’s, involves the risks of open conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, egged on by the US and Israel. Such disruption could not be contained. It would spread, risking oil shipments from the region and wider conflict between Sunni and Shia.

As Malley puts it:

With so many flashpoints, and so little diplomacy, the risk of an escalatory cycle is great.

From an Australian perspective, an escalation would be alarming, given the deployment of our forces in a training capacity in Iraq.

Third is Afghanistan, where the tempo of US-led strikes against the Taliban is set to increase, along with pressure on Pakistan to desist in its covert support for the insurgency.

Malley recommends:

US allies in Afghanistan should push for a greater diplomatic political component to the US strategy. As it stands, that strategy sets the stage for more violence while closing avenues for de-escalation.

With troops in the field in a training capacity, the Australian government should be pushing for a regional settlement, involving Afghanistan’s neighbours and the insurgents.

Rohingya refugees continue to flee from Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh.
Reuters/Tyrone Siu

Fourth on my list is the issue of identity policy in southern Asia, including the displacement of the Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh.

As Bremmer and Kupchan put it:

Identity politics in southern Asia comes in several forms: Islamism, anti-China and anti-other minority sentiment, and intensifying nationalism in India.

From Australia’s perspective, displacement and persecution of minorities in its neighbourhood is a particularly worrying development, along with Islamic State-inspired eruptions in countries like the Philippines.

Finally, looms the issue of cyber conflict.

The biggest fight over economic power centres on the development of new information technologies. Competition for dominance in the areas of artificial intelligence and super-computing between the US and China has serious implications for Australia’s national security.

The cyber issue, which potentially includes the weaponisation of AI, is becoming the new contested space.

And that’s not all …

Now, to a less concerning issue, for the moment: the global economy.

In its latest overview, the World Bank expects global growth to edge up to 3.1% “after a much stronger-than-expected 2017, as the recovery in investment, manufacturing and trade continues, and as commodity-exporting developing economies benefit from firming commodity prices”.

As one of the world’s biggest commodity exporters, this is good news for Australia. The World Bank says:

2018 is on track to be the first year since the financial crisis that the global economy will be operating at or near full capacity.

However, it also warns of a slowdown in potential growth as stimulatory fiscal and monetary policies run their course.

The ConversationWelcome to 2018.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What needs to be done to make Africa politically stable



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Africa needs average economic growth of over 7% for several decades if it’s to reduce poverty and increase income levels.
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Jakkie Cilliers, University of Pretoria

Levels of armed conflict flux and wane. In 2017, levels of high fatality violence in Africa were significantly lower than during the immediate post-Cold War period. This trend has occurred in spite of the recent increases in terrorist associated fatalities in key countries such as Nigeria and Somalia. Even terrorist fatalities have declined since 2015.

But the continent is still witnessing an increase in social turbulence, unrest and protest. This is being driven by development, urbanisation and modernisation, all of which are inevitably disruptive. Development has been driven by the fact that, since 1994, Africa has experienced the longest sustained period of growth since decolonialisation in the sixties.

The other major factor driving unrest is the fact that democracy is expanding on the continent. Pressure is mounting on autocracies. We therefore shouldn’t be surprised by widespread violence in countries ranging from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to Burundi and Uganda. And in countries run by small elites or a family – such as Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.

In the long term only rapid, inclusive economic growth combined with good governance can make Africa less volatile.

But how can it achieve this? What’s needed is a combination of sound economic policies, an attack on corruption and theft by ruling elites, a deepening of democracy and a rethink of the approach taken to the threat of terrorism.

The economics

At current population growth Africa needs average economic growth rates in excess of 7% per year for several decades if it’s to reduce poverty and increase average levels of income. This is unlikely. Current forecasts estimate average rates of growth of around half of that.

Perhaps more importantly, Africa needs to find ways of reaping its demographic dividend – that is decreasing the number of dependants, mostly children, compared to persons of working age (15 to 65 years of age). Traditionally this is best achieved through improvements in female education, but the provision of water, sanitation and access to contraceptives can play a huge role. This is reflected in a recent study we did on the future of Ethiopia that has seen more rapid reductions in fertility rates than other countries at similar levels of development.

Africa also needs to place employment in formal sector at the centre of government policy. This, in turn, requires diversification of African economies as well as much higher levels of foreign investment and engagement.

When it comes to investment and development aid the Institute for Security Studies found that middle income countries are making progress in attracting foreign direct investment, but poor countries remain aid dependent.

Although aid is going out of fashion in favour of measures to involve the private sector, it will remain important for low income countries. It allows governments to deliver services such as water, sanitation and education more than they would otherwise be able to do. These investments in human capital development will deliver large benefits and will have long term positive effects.

Another area of focus should be on supporting the rule of law and the delivery of effective taxation systems. Basics such as national identity systems, effective border control and a functioning criminal justice systems are often absent.

Democracy, extremism and security responses

Many people across a wide range of countries on the continent are stepping up their demands for more democracy. Despite many setbacks, democratisation continues to advance year on year.

Doing these two things simultaneously – building government capacity and responding to demands for democracy – is difficult. Marginalisation, a lack of voice, a lack of accountability often lies at the heart of instability in a continent that has experienced autocracy and bad governance for decades.

Regional organisations (such as the Southern African Development Community and the Central African Economic Monetary Community need to take accountable governance seriously.

Unless this happens, there’s a real danger that the draw of extremist groups will escalate.

Accountable governance should also extend to the security sector where reform is perhaps the single most important component in countering violent extremism. the continent’s military, policy, gendarme and intelligence systems are generally not held to account, they act with impunity and are often the source of many problems. Instead of protecting and serving they kill, loot and rape.

Both the ISS and the UNDP have concluded that action by security forces – such as the killing or arrest of a family member – often serves as the tipping point that triggers the final decision to join an extremist group.

In addition, Africa seems to have bought into the US war on terror approach which is to rely on the military. In fact, terrorism requires an intelligence, prosecution, and rule of law approach. African countries would be well advised to revert to an intelligence and policing response rather than a military response to terrorism.

Radicalisation is also fuelled by corruption, theft by ruling elites and tax havens. Africa needs to work with the rest of the world to end tax havens, tax avoidance and money laundering.

Fight for a rules-based world

African countries need to intensify their efforts towards a rules based world, including reform of the UN Security Council, which sits at the apex of global security governance.

But the continent needs to stop hiding behind the Ezulwini consensus – this is the common position taken by African countries on UN reform that advocates for two permanent seats with veto rights and five non-permanent seats for Africa – and start thinking outside the box.

The ConversationReal reform is possible, but it would require a different approach, including ending the system of veto and permanent seats.

Jakkie Cilliers, Chair of the Board of Trustees and Head of African Futures & Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies. Extraordinary Professor in the Centre of Human Rights, University of Pretoria

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The complexity of laughing at Trump – and lessons from France’s sans-culottes


Linda Kiernan, Trinity College Dublin

The power of laughter is something of a theme in Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump’s humourless response to Barack Obama’s jibes at the White House correspondents’ dinner in 2011 allegedly steeled his reserve to run for president in the first place; the New York Times recently asked why Trump himself seemingly never laughs at all.

And in October, it was reported that a US woman would stand a second trial for simply laughing at Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, at a congressional hearing. Desiree Fairooz had already been tried for this “contempt” – or as Stephen Colbert termed it, “first-degree chuckling with intent to titter”.

The prosecuting attorney stated that Fairooz “wasn’t just merely responding, she was voicing an opinion”. The argument that laughter alone was enough to convict was thrown out by the first judge; Ms Fairooz’s “brief reflexive burst of noise” has just been dismissed by the Department of Justice.

In the US’s rough political climate, laughter is having a hard time, too. Many questions on its worth have been posed: is laughter muffling potentially more effective forms of criticism? Is satire defusing political commentary by humanising its targets? Alec Baldwin has expressed concern that his impression of Trump on Saturday Night Live has disarmed real incisive commentary, reducing the presidency and its incumbent to a crass approximation of the more troublesome reality.

Weapons of the weak

What these qualms reflect is that as a political gesture, laughter has a considerable range. It can be used to defuse a situation, or to inflame. It can serve as a conciliatory gesture, and equally as a means of defiance. It can single out a target while also uniting a crowd. Laughter is used by many politicians; when they laugh along they can diffuse tension, and relax the public gaze. They become relatable, approachable, and at least acknowledge that they are meant to be the their audience’s equal, not their better.

But laughter can also carry a potentially revolutionary force. It’s a way for a group to recognise their common view of a figure, an issue, or a political standpoint. To quote George Orwell: “Every joke is a tiny revolution.”

The Laughing Fool, c. 1500.
Wikimedia Commons

Laughter was for much of history considered the mark of a fool, an uncontrolled reaction of the body and mind that betrayed an absence of reason. Many, including Plato and Hobbes, viewed laughter as a base expression, an animalistic response, devoid of reason. But in the 20th century, many scholars, including Henri Bergson and Mikhail Bakhtin, came up with more nuanced analyses of laughter and its political clout.

It was true that in what Bakhtin called carnivalesque culture, laughter became synonymous with the grotesque and the obscene, but it still serves an important social purpose: a means for those who had no other recourse to protest to register their views of the status quo.

Rumour, gossip, and laughter have been termed weapons of the weak, opportunities to defy authority in unofficial and often indefinable ways. Traditionally, this has made them harder for oppressive regimes to clearly identify and possibly prosecute. To this day, laughter remains a means of political expression for those who are otherwise disenfranchised: it subjects the powerful to both ridicule and scrutiny.

Get it?

In the early modern period, laughter played a significant role as a political language. The celebrations of the Feast of Fools and the Feast of the Ass allowed people of all levels of society to both display their places in the social order and to ridicule them. It was at once an assertion of authority and a challenge to it.

During the 18th century, political satire gained much ground. Enlightenment authors across Europe took aim at institutions of authority, often in underhand and opaque ways to circumvent censorship. Oftentimes “getting the joke” affirmed one’s membership of a political creed or club. Indeed, when political upheaval took hold in France, the need to laugh “appropriately” emerged as a measure of one’s loyalty to the revolution. The “rire sardonique”, the aristocratic snigger, was replaced with the good-natured belly-laugh of the “sansculotte” – the honest, genuine expression of mirth of the ordinary man, rather than the contrived, artificial ridicule of the polished courtier.

This idea of laughing the right laugh, of laughter as an indication of identity and mentality, is echoed in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1935 essay, Bolsheviks Do Laugh. The laughter of the Bolshevik, Eisenstein wrote, was loaded with the weight of revolution, of striving for the proletarian order. Unlike the laughter of others, Bolshevik laughter was not idle, nor frivolous. It was invested with the irony of Chekhov, the bitterness of Gogol; it was not for mere amusement, it had a higher purpose. For Eisenstein, laughter represented ways of seeing and understanding the world.

Politicians and those in positions of authority who actively resist or deny the right of those who have elected them to deride, ridicule, and laugh at them are also denying the idea that they are their citizens’ equal, that they are subject to scrutiny and indeed that they are accountable. While standards of comedy and perceptions of laughter have changed over time, one thing has remained immutable: laughter has always provided a means of dialogue between those in power and those they rule.

The ConversationWhen that dialogue is suspended – or rather, when the powerful lose their sense of humour – it’s time to worry.

Linda Kiernan, Lecturer in French History, Trinity College Dublin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

China wants to dominate the world’s green energy markets – here’s why



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xieyuliang / shutterstock

Chris G. Pope, University of Sheffield

If there is to be an effective response to climate change, it will probably emanate from China. The geopolitical motivations are clear. Renewable energy is increasingly inevitable, and those that dominate the markets in these new technologies will likely have the most influence over the development patterns of the future. As other major powers find themselves in climate denial or atrophy, China may well boost its power and status by becoming the global energy leader of tomorrow.

President Xi Jinping has been vocal on the issue. He has already called for an “ecological civilization”. The state’s “green shift” supports this claim by striving to transition to alternative energies and become more energy efficient.

But there are material benefits as well. China’s proactive response has impacted on global energy markets. Today, five of the world’s six top solar-module manufacturers, five of the largest wind turbine manufacturers, and six of the ten major car manufacturers committed to electrification are all Chinese-owned. Meanwhile, China is dominant in the lithium sector – think: batteries, electric vehicles and so on – and a global leader in smart grid investment and other renewable energy technologies.

This is only a start. There are modest projections that just 20% of the country’s primary energy consumption will come from non-carbon sources by 2030. Nonetheless, China’s sheer size means Beijing’s aggressive pursuit of emergent and expanding renewables markets should not be ignored. After all, dominating such markets has strong material benefits, while pioneering a green revolution provides intangible benefits in terms of state image and prestige.

So what are these benefits? First, concerns over environmental degradation are very real in China, owing to issues such as air, food and water pollution, and should be acknowledged. Beijing doesn’t want food and water scarcity or smoggy skies either, whether for altruistic environmental reasons or concerns over its popular legitimacy.

But it is worth also considering the geopolitical implications of climate change leadership. Take the US for example, historically the largest carbon emitter. The country had previously been active in climate policy, if somewhat hypocritical (support for hydraulic fracturing, for instance). But the current Trump administration is forthright in its baseless denial of climate change, having withdrawn from the Paris Agreement. It has also hired climate deniers to head its environmental agencies and other offices of power.

Contrast this with China, which is becoming increasingly proactive. In 2016 it became the largest shareholder in a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which, along with the BRICS-established New Development Bank, invests heavily in green energy. The two institutions are seen as potential competitors to the IMF and the World Bank.

Of course, the situation is not black and white with China “going green” and everyone else sitting idly by. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which commits to political, economic and military integration across Eurasia, the world’s largest landmass, for instance, comprises of nations with strategic interests in exporting hydrocarbons and coal. However, the same is true for the more environmentally aware Obama administration which advocated forcefully the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would have overriden attempts to establish green industries and constrained signatory states to its agreements with big business ahead of climate change action.

To this end, former president Obama argued that it was necessary for the US to shape the rules of global trade to US benefit. That being the case, what about China? As a major power, it is strengthening its international agency by pioneering these multilateral alternatives, many of which heavily invest in green energy projects. Through development banks or Asian trade agreements, China can provide an alternative vision to an international integration ostensibly based on the universal values espoused by the US and its chief allies.

“Going green”, then, while undeniably necessary, is a useful image or value to uphold as it serves to legitimate Chinese international and regional leadership. In this sense, it mirrors the way G7 nations espouse “democracy” or “freedom”. Going green also happens to be economically viable for those that have the funds to invest, contributing to China’s transition from the world’s manufacturing base to a truly major power.

The ConversationChina’s response to climate change combined with the size of its economy has thrust it to the centre of a global shift. Large-scale funding through Chinese-led multilateral frameworks could see a new energy system emerge – led by China. This would greatly extend its influence on the international political economy at the expense of those major powers unable or unwilling to respond.

Chris G. Pope, Researcher, University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Donald Trump doesn’t understand Haiti, immigration or American history



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After Haiti signed its Declaration of Independence from France, in 1804, the U.S. started a 60-year political and economic embargo that hobbled the young nation’s growth.
Wikimedia

Chantalle F. Verna, Florida International University

Donald Trump’s denigrating comments about Haiti during a recent congressional meeting shocked people around the globe, but given his track record of disrespecting immigrants, they were not actually that surprising.

Despite campaign promises that Trump would be Haiti’s “biggest champion,” his administration had already demonstrated its disregard for people from this Caribbean island. In November 2017, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would end the Temporary Protected Status that had allowed 59,000 Haitians to stay in the U.S. after a calamitous Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake.

Their TPS was extended after Hurricane Matthew devastated Haiti again in 2016. Without protected status, these Haitian migrants have until July 2019 to get a green card, leave voluntarily or be deported.

As a scholar and first-generation Haitan-American, I can attest that Trump’s statements and policies reflect not just disrespect for Haiti but also a profound ignorance about how migration occurs.

Why history matters

As shown in my recent book, “Haiti and the Uses of America,” history shapes where immigrants choose to build their lives.

Outsiders head to the United States in times of crisis not at random but because historic ties point them in this direction. When nativists like President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions refer to immigrants as “criminal aliens” – perpetuating the idea that foreigners are “invading” the country – they ignore this key fact.

Movement from Haiti to the U.S. has its roots in colonial times, when British, French and Spanish traders exchanged coffee, cotton and mahogany between the two territories.

In the 1790s, thousands of white and mixed-race residents sought refuge from a revolutionary war in colonial Haiti, which was then called Saint Domingue. Fleeing an uprising by enslaved men and women of African descent, French colonists boarded ships following historic trade routes to U.S. port cities like New Orleans, Philadelphia and New York. Some brought with them the people they had enslaved.

An estimated 10,000 Saint Dominguan revolution-era refugees eventually resettled in Louisiana, contributing to the distinct Creole history
and culture that characterizes Gulf cities like New Orleans today.

By 1804 the island’s revolutionaries had driven out France to found Haiti. The U.S., however, did not formally recognize Haitian independence until 1862.

Born of a slave rebellion, Haiti challenged the legitimacy of an American economy and society dependent on racial hierarchies. In 1806, the U.S. government imposed an economic embargo on the island.

But a vibrant illicit trade persisted. In 1821, 45 percent of Haitian imports still came from the U.S.

As a result, migration between the two nations continued, too – and not just from Haiti to the U.S. In the 1820s, some 13,000 African-Americans sought refuge in Haiti, seeking freedom from slavery, anti-black violence and lack of economic opportunity in the U.S.

In the 1870s, civic and religious leaders, notably Richard Allen of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Episcopalian Theodore James Holly, enabled similar journeys by negotiating directly with Haitian heads of state.

President Abraham Lincoln supported such schemes to send African-Americans abroad – not just to Haiti but also to Liberia, Central America and elsewhere. Even many abolitionists of the era believed that blacks and whites could not co-exist as equals in the U.S..

Many of the African-Americans who went to Haiti later returned to the U.S., in part drawn by the promise of new legal rights after the Civil War.

American meddling leads to migration

By the time the American embargo of Haiti ended in 1862, the U.S. was openly striving for political and economic domination of the Western Hemisphere, including in the Caribbean.

Starting with President Ulysses S. Grant, who wanted to annex Haiti, American politicians militarily pursued U.S. interests on the island nation. Between 1862 and 1915, American warships were active in Haitian waters 17 times.

Powerful commercial lobbies with a business stake in Haiti – particularly the financial and sugar industries – also meddled in the island’s affairs. Foreign merchants and bankers in Haiti paid armed groups known as cacos to overthrow standing presidents and empower leaders who would give them preferential terms of trade.

The political and economic instability that resulted helped perpetuate the racist perception of Haitians as incapable of self-rule.

It also fueled emigration. New research shows that in the first decades of the 20th century, some 200,000 rural Haitians left to work as guest laborers for American sugar companies in Cuba. They were among more than 1 million Caribbeans who traveled across the Americas between 1840 and 1940. Some of them eventually landed in the United States.

A series of military interventions

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson invaded Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. The occupation, which lasted until 1934, was the first in a series of U.S. military actions on the island.

The next interventions came in 1994 and 2004, under the auspices of the United Nations. The impetus was the 1991 ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who’d been elected during Haiti’s contested four-year transition from dictatorship to democracy. Through an economic embargo initiated by President George Bush and a military engagement under President Bill Clinton, Aristide was restored to power in 1994.

When he was again forced out 10 years later, President George W. Bush ordered the U.S. Marines back into Haiti.

The actions preceding and during these interventions have destabilized Haiti. In other words, for over a century, the U.S. has helped to perpetuate and exacerbate the political fragility and economic struggle that leads Haitians to seek refuge on American shores.

Today, an estimated 830,000 people of Haitian descent live in the U.S., primarily in Florida and New York. Approximately 40 percent of them were born in the U.S.

With their TPS status revoked, nearly 60,000 Haitians will face deportation from the U.S. starting in July 2019.
Lynne Sladky/Ap Images

Few Haitian-Americans are wealthy – in 2009, census data shows, 1 in 5 households lived in poverty – but they are employed at higher rates than the general American public.

The Haitian-American population is also growing, more than tripling between 1990 and 2015. Within this group are the nearly 60,000 people granted Temporary Protected Status after the 2010 earthquake, who have now lived in the U.S. for an average of 13 years.

In countless ways, Haiti is woven into the fabric of the United States. Haitian-Americans have made their homes in South Florida, Brooklyn, and Detroit, among many other places.

The ConversationThe deep historic ties binding Haiti and the U.S. will persist with or without Donald Trump. What the president’s repugnant language and short-sighted policy changes can do is spur new crises in both Haiti and the United States.

Chantalle F. Verna, Associate Professor of History and International Relations, Florida International University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘Shithole countries’: Trump uses the rhetoric of dictators



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A day after Donald Trump met with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, he told lawmakers the U.S. should have more immigrants from places like Norway and not “shithole” countries like Haiti.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Henry Giroux, McMaster University

George Orwell warns us in his dystopian novel 1984 that authoritarianism begins with language. In the novel, “newspeak” is language twisted to deceive, seduce and undermine the ability of people to think critically and freely.

Donald Trump’s unapologetic bigoted language made headlines again Thursday when it was reported he told lawmakers working on a new immigration policy that the United States shouldn’t accept people from “shithole countries” like Haiti. Given his support for white nationalism and his coded call to “Make America Great (White) Again,” Trump’s overt racist remarks reinforce echoes of white supremacy reminiscent of fascist dictators in the 1930s.

His remarks about accepting people from Norway smack of an appeal to the sordid discourse of racial purity. There is much more at work here than a politics of incivility. Behind Trump’s use of vulgarity and his disparagement of countries that are poor and non-white lies the terrifying discourse of white supremacy, ethnic cleansing and the politics of disposability. This is a vocabulary that considers some individuals and groups not only faceless and voiceless, but excess, redundant and subject to expulsion. The endpoint of the language of disposability is a form of social death, or even worse.

As authoritarianism gains strength, the formative cultures that give rise to dissent become more embattled, along with the public spaces and institutions that make conscious critical thought possible.

Words that speak to the truth to reveal injustices and provide informed critical analysis begin to disappear, making it all the more difficult, if not dangerous, to judge, think critically and hold dominant power accountable. Notions of virtue, honour, respect and compassion are policed, and those who advocate them are punished.

I think it’s fair to argue that Orwell’s nightmare vision of the future is no longer fiction in the United States. Under Trump, language is undergoing a shift: It now treats dissent, critical media coverage and scientific evidence as a species of “fake news.”

The Trump administration, in fact, views the critical media as the “enemy of the American people.” Trump has repeated this view of the media so often that almost a third of Americans now believe it and support government-imposed restrictions on the media, according to a Poynter survey.

Thought crimes and fake news

Trump’s cries of “fake news” work incessantly to set limits on what is thinkable. Reason, standards of evidence, consistency and logic no longer serve the truth, according to Trump, because the latter are crooked ideological devices used by enemies of the state. Orwell’s “thought crimes” are Trump’s “fake news.” Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” is Trump’s “Ministry of Fake News.”

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The notion of truth is viewed by this president as a corrupt tool used by the critical media to question his dismissal of legal checks on his power, particularly his attacks on judges, courts and any other governing institutions that will not promise him complete and unchecked loyalty.

For Trump, intimidation takes the place of unquestioned loyalty when he does not get his way, revealing a view of the presidency that is more about winning than about governing.

One consequence is the myriad practices by which Trump gleefully humiliates and punishes his critics, wilfully engages in shameful acts of self-promotion and unapologetically enriches his financial coffers.

Under Trump, the language of civic literacy and democracy has become unmoored from critical reason, informed debate and the weight of scientific evidence, and is now being reconfigured and tied to pageantry, political theatre and a deep-seated anti-intellectualism.

One consequence, as language begins to function as a tool of state repression, is that matters of moral and political responsibility disappear and injustices proliferate.

Fascism starts with words

What is crucial to remember here, as authoritarianism expert Ruth Ben-Ghiat notes, is that fascism starts with words. Trump’s use of language and his manipulative use of the media as political spectacle are disturbingly similar to earlier periods of propaganda, censorship and repression.

Under fascist regimes, the language of brutality and culture of cruelty was normalized through the proliferation of strident metaphors of war, battle, expulsion, racial purity and demonization.

As German historians such as Richard J. Evans and Victor Klemperer have made clear, dictators like Adolf Hitler did more than simply corrupt the language of a civilized society, they also banned words.

Soon afterwards, the Nazis banned books and the critical intellectuals who wrote them. They then imprisoned those individuals who challenged Nazi ideology and the state’s systemic violations of civil rights.

The end point was an all-embracing discourse of disposability — the emergence of concentration camps and genocide fuelled by a politics of racial purity and social cleansing.

Echoes of the formative stages of such actions are upon us now. An American-style neo-fascism appears to be engulfing the United States after simmering in the dark for years.

President Donald Trump stands on the field for the U.S. national anthem before the start of the NCAA National Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium between Georgia and Alabama on Jan. 8 in Atlanta.
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

More than any other president, Trump has normalized the notion that the meaning of words no longer matters, nor do traditional sources of facts and evidence. In doing so, he has undermined the relationship between engaged citizenship and the truth, and has relegated matters of debate and critical assessment to a spectacle of bombast, threats, intimidation and sheer fakery.

This language of fascism does more than normalize falsehoods and ignorance. It also promotes a larger culture of short-term attention spans, immediacy and sensationalism. At the same time, it makes fear and anxiety the normalized currency of exchange and communication.

In a throwback to the language of fascism, Trump has repeatedly positioned himself as the only one who can save the masses — reproducing the tired script of the model of the saviour endemic to authoritarianism.

There is more at work here than an oversized ego. Trump’s authoritarianism is also fuelled by braggadocio and misdirected rage as he undermines the bonds of solidarity, abolishes institutions meant to protect the vulnerable and launches a full-fledged assault on the environment.

Trump is also the master of manufactured illiteracy, and his obsessive tweeting and public relations machine aggressively engages in the theatre of self-promotion and distractions. Both of these are designed to whitewash any version of a history that might expose the close alignment between his own language and policies and the dark elements of a fascist past.

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Trump also revels in an unchecked mode of self-congratulation bolstered by a limited vocabulary filled with words like “historic,” “best,” “the greatest,” “tremendous” and “beautiful.”

Those exaggerations suggest more than hyperbole or the self-indulgent use of language. When he claims he “knows more about ISIS than the generals,” “knows more about renewables than any human being on Earth” or that nobody knows the U.S. system of government better than he does, he’s using the rhetoric of fascism.

As the aforementioned historian Richard J. Evans writes in The Third Reich in Power:

“The German language became a language of superlatives, so that everything the regime did became the best and the greatest, its achievements unprecedented, unique, historic and incomparable …. The language used about Hitler … was shot through and through with religious metaphors; people ‘believed in him,’ he was the redeemer, the savior, the instrument of Providence, his spirit lived in and through the German nation…. Nazi institutions domesticated themselves [through the use of a language] that became an unthinking part of everyday life.”

Sound familiar?

Under the Trump regime, memories inconvenient to his authoritarianism are now demolished in the domesticated language of superlatives so the future can be shaped to become indifferent to the crimes of the past.

Trump’s endless daily tweets, his recklessness, his adolescent disdain for a measured response, his unfaltering anti-intellectualism and his utter ignorance of history work in the United States. Why? Because they not only cater to what historian Brian Klass refers to as “the tens of millions of Americans who have authoritarian or fascist leanings,” they also enable what he calls Trump’s attempt at “mainstreaming fascism.”

The language of fascism revels in forms of theatre that mobilize fear, hatred and violence. Author Sasha Abramsky is on target in claiming that Trump’s words amount to more than empty slogans.

Instead, his language comes “with consequences, and they legitimize bigotries and hatreds long harbored by many but, for the most part, kept under wraps by the broader society.”

Surely, the increase in hate crimes during Trump’s first year of his presidency testifies to the truth of Abramsky’s argument.

Fighting Trump’s fascist language

The history of fascism teaches us that language operates in the service of violence, desperation and troubling landscapes of hatred, and carries the potential for inhabiting the darkest moments of history.

It erodes our humanity, and makes too many people numb and silent in the face of ideologies and practices that are hideous acts of ethical atrocity.

Trump’s language, like that of older fascist regimes, mutilates contemporary politics, empathy and serious moral and political criticism, and makes it more difficult to criticize dominant relations of power.

His fascistic language also fuels the rhetoric of war, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, anti-intellectualism and racism. But it’s not his alone.

It is the language of a nascent fascism that has been brewing in the United States for some time. It is a language that is comfortable viewing the world as a combat zone, a world that exists to be plundered and a view of those deemed different as a threat to be feared, if not eliminated.

A new language aimed at fighting Trump’s romance with fascism must make power visible, uncover the truth, contest falsehoods and create a formative and critical culture that can nurture and sustain collective resistance to the oppression that has overtaken the United States, and increasingly many other countries.

No form of oppression can be overlooked. And with that critical gaze must emerge a critical language, a new narrative and a different story about what a socialist democracy will look like in the United States.

Reclaiming language as a force for good

There is also a need to strengthen and expand the reach and power of established public spheres, such as higher education and the critical media, as sites of critical learning.

We must encourage artists, intellectuals, academics and other cultural workers to talk, educate, make oppression visible and challenge the common-sense vocabulary of casino capitalism, white supremacy and fascism.

Language is not simply an instrument of fear, violence and intimidation; it is also a vehicle for critique, civic courage and resistance.

A critical language can guide us in our thinking about the relationship between older elements of fascism and how such practices are emerging in new forms.

Without a faith in intelligence, critical education and the power to resist, humanity will be powerless to challenge the threat that fascism and right-wing populism pose to the world.

Those of us willing to fight for a just political and economic society need to formulate a new language and fresh narratives about freedom, the power of collective struggle, empathy, solidarity and the promise of a real socialist democracy.

We would do well to heed the words of the great Nobel Prize-winning novelist, J.M. Coetzee, who states in a work of fiction that “there will come a day when you and I will need to be told the truth, the real truth ….no matter how hard it may be.”

The ConversationDemocracy, indeed, can only survive with a critically informed and engaged public attentive to a language in which truth, rather than lies, become the currency of citizenship.

Henry Giroux, Chaired professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the Department of English and Cultural Studies, McMaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Will elections in 2018 see 2017’s left-wing revival continue?



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NZ Labour had been polling in the mid-20s before Jacinda Ardern became its leader and eventually won the 2017 election.
AAP/Mick Tsikas

Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

In 2018 there will be elections in the Australian states of Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, as well as in Italy, the US and Mexico.

Essential has released polling for the five mainland Australian states, conducted from October to December. Figures are given by month for the three eastern seaboard states.

In South Australia, Labor led 51-49 in October to December, a one-point gain for the Liberals since July to September. Primary votes were 34% Labor (down three), 31% Liberals (up one), 22% for Nick Xenophon’s SA-BEST (up four) and 8% Greens (up two). The South Australian election will be held on March 17.

Newspoll had SA-BEST at 32% from polling conducted in the same period as Essential. Essential is assuming SA-BEST preferences flow to the Liberals at a 60-40 rate, but at the 2016 federal election, these preferences flowed to Labor at a 60-40 rate. Essential’s justification is that the Liberals have lost far more primary votes than Labor since the 2014 state election.

In Victoria, the Coalition led 51-49 in December, a two-point gain for the Coalition since November. Primary votes were 46% Coalition (up three), 37% Labor (steady) and 9% Greens (down one). For the October to December period, Labor was just ahead, 51-49. The Victorian election will be held November 24.

The Age commissioned ReachTEL polls of the Labor-held Victorian seats of Tarneit and Cranbourne on January 5. On the primary votes, there is a substantial anti-Labor swing in Tarneit, but little swing in Cranbourne.

There were many questions in the ReachTEL polls on youth crime. About two-thirds in both seats said the main youth crime issue was African gangs, and more than 55% said they were less likely to go out at night. A positive for Labor was that Premier Daniel Andrews had a large lead over Opposition Leader Matthew Guy on dealing with crime.

In the New South Wales Essential poll, Labor led 52-48 in December, a three-point gain for Labor since November. Primary votes were 40% Coalition (down three), 40% Labor (up three) and 9% Greens (steady). For October to December, Labor led 51-49.

I believe this is the first time Labor has led in a NSW state poll since shortly after the 2007 state election. The next NSW election will be held in March 2019.

In Queensland, Labor led 55-45 in December, a four-point gain for Labor since the November election. In Western Australia, Labor led 57-43 in October to December, a three-point gain for Labor since July to September.

The Tasmanian election is likely to be held in March, and it appears Labor is ahead under its popular leader Rebecca White.

The Italian election will be held on March 4. 37% of seats in both chambers of the parliament will be elected using first-past-the-post voting, while the rest use proportional representation.

Polling gives the right-wing coalition about 37%, the left-wing coalition about 27%, and the left-wing populist Five Star Movement about 28%. As the left is more split than the right, the right will have an advantage in the first-past-the-post seats, though it will probably be short of an overall majority.

The Mexican election will be held on July 1. The president is elected by first-past-the-post, and the left-wing candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is currently ahead. By antagonising Mexicans, US President Donald Trump could cause the election of a left-winger who would strongly oppose the proposed border wall.

The FiveThirtyEight poll aggregate currently gives Democrats a 11-point lead over Republicans in the race for the US Congress. Midterm elections will be held in early November, in which all 435 House of Representatives members and one-third of the 100 Senators are up for election. The Senate seats up this year went to Democrats by 25-8 in 2012, and a few Democrats will be defending states Trump won easily in 2016.

Even though Republicans only have a 51-49 Senate majority, the House of Representatives is more likely to switch party control than the Senate.

Left-wing parties performed better than expected in 2017 elections

In 2016, Trump was elected US president, and the UK voted to leave the European Union. Trump and Brexit were triumphs for the populist right, and it was expected that the left would also struggle in 2017. However, in both Australian and overseas elections held in 2017, the left generally performed better than expected.

At the March 2017 Western Australian election, Labor won a landslide, with 41 of the 59 lower house seats.

At the November Queensland election, Labor won a majority, and One Nation won just one seat. There had been much speculation that One Nation would win many seats and hold the balance of power.

A year after Trump’s victory, US Democrats easily won the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections. In the Alabama Senate byelection, Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore by a 50.0-48.3 margin, overturning Trump’s 62-34 Alabama margin over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Jones was sworn in as a US senator on January 3, replacing Luther Strange, who had been appointed by the Alabama governor after Jeff Sessions resigned to become attorney-general. Republicans now have a 51-49 majority in the US Senate, down from 52-48.

In an April article published after Theresa May called the June 8 UK general election, I said a Conservative landslide was likely – a widely held view. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s vote instead increased almost ten points from 2015, and the Conservatives failed to win a majority – though they clung to power with support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

In the May French presidential election run-off, Emmanuel Macron crushed Marine Le Pen 66-34. While Macron is a centrist and not a left-winger, he is clearly preferable to a conservative or Le Pen from a left perspective.

In October, Labour won the New Zealand election (which was held in September) after securing a coalition agreement with NZ First. Labour had been polling in the mid-20s before Jacinda Ardern became its leader in August.

While 2017 was generally a good year for the left, there were two poor results. At the October Austrian election, a conservative/far-right government was formed after more than a decade of coalition governments between the major left and right-wing parties.

At the German election in September, the far-right achieved its highest vote share since the second world war (12.6%). The major parties had formed a grand coalition, and both slumped, with the Social Democrats falling to their lowest vote (20.5%) since 1932. Despite this terrible result, it appears likely there will be another grand coalition government led by Angela Merkel.

Where there has been a clear difference between the major left and right-wing parties (the UK, the US and New Zealand), the left-wing party has performed strongly. The dismal results for the left in Germany and Austria have occurred in left/right coalitions, where there was perceived to be little difference between the left and right.

Furthermore, embracing a left-wing agenda neutralises some of the far-right’s appeal. The UK Independence Party won just 1.8% of the vote at the 2017 election, down almost 11 points from 2015, though some of this fall was caused by the Conservatives’ support for Brexit. Macron vigorously attacked Le Pen’s policies, and thrashed her by a bigger than expected margin.

The ConversationThe far-right tends to perform best when voters perceive little difference between the major left- and right-wing parties.

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mahathir Mohamad crops up again in bid to lead Malaysia – with Anwar on the same side



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At 92, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is again vying for the country’s top job.
Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

Amrita Malhi, Australian National University

On January 8, former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad announced his intention to contest the next general election, due sometime before August this year.

In an unprecedented political turnaround, Mahathir is now leader of the alliance of opposition parties bidding to oust the incumbent, Najib Razak. Mahathir handpicked Najib in 2009 to head his former party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and the coalition it has led since the 1970s, Barisan Nasional.

To add further intrigue, Mahathir now appears to be on a unity ticket with his old enemy, Anwar Ibrahim, for control of the country.

Mahathir, who first rose through UMNO ranks to become prime minister in 1981, is 92. His decision to stand again has raised questions about the state of politics in this young nation, whose median age is 28. Malaysian and international media outlets alike have carried comments along the lines that nominating somebody so old is a “laughable” choice.

Yet the key to this decision is not in the nation’s age profile but the calculus of building electoral coalitions in a diverse nation bearing the scars of political battles fought since 1998.


Read more: People power challenges Malaysia’s PM, but change from within most likely


Look also to Mahathir’s singular skillset in building such coalitions over decades, through a combination of Malay nationalism, a pro-capitalist Islamist ethic and selective minority representation. During his career, Mahathir mastered the use of such political themes, alongside tactics such as granting favours and opportunities to allies while exerting civil and judicial pressure on opponents.

Mahathir led Malaysia for 22 years. In that time, he transformed the nation for better and for worse, depending on which constituency you consult. He resigned in 2003, after famously sacking his deputy and finance minister, Anwar Ibrahim, in 1998.

Anwar, who became his most formidable opponent, has since led the opposition alliance that Mahathir now heads, with Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, as his deputy.

Former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim is still serving sentences for sodomy and corruption.
Reuters/Olivia Harris

Anwar himself has nearly completed a second prison term – the first instigated by Mahathir, the second by Najib – and is only due for release in June, at which point he is likely to seek a royal pardon to readmit himself to political life. Anwar’s convictions have resulted from charges of corruption and sodomy – a criminal offence in Malaysia – both of which he has consistently denied.

Unless Anwar wins a pardon from the king, he will not be able to participate in politics for an additional five years after his release. Nonetheless, the plan is to find a way for Anwar to take over – presumably from Mahathir, or potentially from Wan Azizah.

In 2013, at the last election, Anwar led the opposition parties to win the national popular vote. But he did not win sufficient seats to form government, which Barisan retained.

Anwar has perfected a form of political code-switching, which allows him to argue for democratic reforms using both Islamic and secular liberal principles. This is a skill many voters, Muslim and non-Muslim, consider impressive.

Nevertheless, he failed to win important rural seats – whose largely Malay Muslim voters hold disproportionate power in this largely urban nation. Many voters in these seats view their economic and political interests as tied up with UMNO and Barisan, along with their development schemes, subsidies and loans that have propelled many Malay Muslims into better jobs in a modernising economy.

Appointing Mahathir as opposition figurehead is a bid to win these seats: the one missing ingredient in the opposition parties’ 2013 bid for power. It is for this reason that the “nonagenarian”, as Najib calls him, is suddenly running again. He is a critical component of an opposition pitch to these voters, sending the message that the opposition will not turn their lives or the polity upside down, as many fear it will.

That these fears exist is not a mystery. They circulate in comments made in public forums both by government ministers and by other figures linked to UMNO and its affiliated NGOs. They include the assertion that the opposition is un-Islamic because it includes parties like the Democratic Action Party, whose membership is largely ethnic Chinese.

Allowing this coalition to come to power, the argument goes, would allow it to dismantle the web of state protections that protects Malay Muslims not only from poverty but also from the country’s other “races.” It would also lead to an ethnic Chinese bid for power that would displace Malay Muslims in their own nation – from which they only ejected their last group of colonisers at independence in 1957.

Mahathir is seeking to oust incumbent prime minister Najib Razak.
Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

Installing Mahathir as a figurehead is a signal to these voters – and their political patrons – that there will be no dismantling of Malay Muslim privileges. Nor will there be a public reckoning for members and officials of UMNO if their party falls, as Mahathir signalled earlier this week.

Instead, the logic goes, voting for the opposition will only rewind and reset the nation at the point it had reached 20 years ago – when Mahathir and Anwar were last leading the nation together, as the leaders of the very same Barisan that these voters continue to support.

There are two important additional constituencies that Mahathir aims to reassure, even while they express concern over a potential second era of “Mahathirism” and seek to delimit how much power he might wield in a new government.

These are non-Muslim Chinese, Indian and “other” minorities, along with so-called “liberal” Malay Muslims – a term generally given to urban professionals comfortable with interracial and mixed-gender politics. Many of these voters are already comfortable with the opposition, and may fear not only Barisan, but also the government’s new apparent allies, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).


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PAS has left the opposition alliance and is now working in co-ordination with Barisan. It commands a large following of supporters, although it has lost some leaders and supporters to a new party that subsequently split from it, Amanah, which has remained in the opposition.

If the opposition fails, and Barisan wins decisively, minorities and liberals will not like the price PAS will likely extract from Barisan in return for its support – which many fear includes hudud laws and a wholesale Islamisation of the state and public life. But such a transformation would be risky for Malaysia, and destroy its cultivated reputation as a safe and diverse nation in which “moderate” Islam prevails.

Through the 1990s, Mahathir presented himself to these voters as a bulwark against PAS, which he has characterised as similar to the Taliban and opposed to minority rights. A strong argument along these lines might disrupt Barisan-PAS co-ordination, and potentially deliver Barisan a weak win, whose legitimacy the opposition parties will likely challenge.

Najib has instigated a new battery of national security laws that he might consider using if political disaffection continues after a weak result. But, again, using them will be risky, as Malaysia also projects itself as a democracy.

As for the likelihood of an outright opposition win – this would take a surge of energy that seems not to be evident in supporters demoralised by the seeming impossibility of dislodging Barisan and especially UMNO. Even the multi-billion-dollar scandal that broke in 2015, and which remains the subject of a Department of Justice investigation in the US, seems not to have weakened its position.

The ConversationNonetheless, the campaign has begun in all but formal terms.

Amrita Malhi, Visiting Fellow, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.